Ask the Ambassador: "The Role Lebanon Plays in Middle East Regional Stability"

Posted by Jeffrey Feltman
November 6, 2007
Lebanon Peace Demonstration

Jeffrey Feltman is the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon.

Lebanon is in the final countdown of Emile Lahoud's presidency, due to expire at midnight on November 23. After having been deprived of its right to vote for a president three years ago, when Syria ordered a constitutional amendment to extend Lahoud's term, Lebanon's Parliament is charged with electing his successor. A struggle is underway about whether the new president will come from the "Cedar Revolution" March 14 bloc (that, despite the assassinations of four of its Members of Parliament in the last two years, still clings to a parliamentary majority) or instead be considered a "consensus" choice acceptable to Hizballah and Syria. Some fear that the political divisions in Lebanon can lead to a presidential vacuum, two parallel governments, or even violence. The United States and other international friends of Lebanon are helping to promote presidential elections held on time and without foreign interference and intimidation. The goal is that a "made-in-Lebanon" president, freely chosen by Lebanon's MPs, will reinforce Lebanon's sovereignty, independence, and democracy, through commitment to the principles behind the dramatic "Cedar Revolution" that led to the withdrawal of Syria's occupying troops in 2005.

Questions and Answers:Ayman in U.S. writes:

How should the Lebanese handle an outcome that may result when the two sides (March 14th coalition and March 8th coalition) do not agree on a common choice for president?

Ambassador Feltman:

Ayman, the Lebanese constitution bestows responsibility on the Lebanese Members of Parliament to elect Lebanon's president. I think that the focus ultimately should be on what Parliament decides. This reinforces the constitutional role of the legislature, which will is publicly accountable to the public (and which faces new elections in only 18 months). The discussions underway now between Lebanese political leaders are aimed at identifying presidential candidates with the broadest possible support to present to the Parliament. Let us hope that these succeed in ways that do not violate Lebanon's parliamentary democracy or undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and independence.

But even if the two major political blocs in Lebanon do not come to an absolute consensus (rare in any democracy, let alone one as deeply divided as Lebanon today), I am convinced that whoever the Parliament members elect as president will strive to use the authority of his office to build bridges among the Lebanese. I have had the opportunity to meet many -- maybe most -- of the people who are described as presidential candidates. I know those considered to be the major candidates fairly well. I am always impressed that -- whether they are from March 14 or March 8 or consider themselves in what they describe as the middle -- they inevitably describe their first priority, if elected, is to help unite the Lebanese. So my advice to the Lebanese would be to trust their Parliamentary Members in electing a president committed to Lebanon's unity, sovereignty, and independence. And then they should give that president the benefit of the doubt in helping promote policies that can unite the country.

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David in Lebanon writes:

How can we learn more about the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) in Lebanon?

Ambassador Feltman:

The Embassy's Office of Defense Cooperation works in partnership with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Government of Lebanon in overseeing the implementation of U.S. military assistance to Lebanon. Our military assistance to the LAF has increased significantly over the past year, as President Bush and the U.S. Congress have responded positively to the requests by the Government of Lebanon and LAF Command for help in increasing the capacity of the LAF. My suggestion would be to follow the press releases in our Embassy's website (www.lebanon.usembassy.gov ), as we regularly make announcements about our activities with the LAF.

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Eric in California writes:

How has the ongoing military operations in Iraq affected your work in Lebanon? Is it a positive one of hope, in that the Lebanese feel good about American intentions, or a negative one, in that they feel America is following the orders of Israel?

Ambassador Feltman:

Eric, the Lebanese, like most people, are focused first and foremost on what's happening on their home turf and on what affects their immediate lives. And because so much is always happening in Lebanon, I actually hear less about Iraq than you might expect. Yet the Lebanese are naturally concerned about the situation in Iraq and share a desire for the quickest possible end to violence there. In terms of local impact, we have worked with the Lebanese to address some of the issues related to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, including the processing of some Iraqi refugees for entry to the United States.

But the Lebanese most often speak to me of Iraq when expressing their own security worries. As in Iraq, Lebanon faces threats from groups affiliated with, or imitating the methods of, al-Qaida. As in Iraq, infiltration of terrorists from a neighboring country poses dangers here. This past summer, for example, the Lebanese Armed Forces with courage and with great sacrifice defeated Fatah al-Islam, a terrorist group not unlike those killing innocent Iraqis, in Nahr al-Barid. I believe that the Lebanese feel a certain solidarity with other countries and people, including the Iraqis, facing such terrorist threats.

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Elfriede in Germany writes:

How would you describe the development of Lebanon since the summer of 2006?

Is there any relevant recovery?

Is the government able to combat Hezbollah effectively?

Does the U.S. give assistance in this process?

Ambassador Feltman:

Elfriede, the short answer to your first question is "mixed." Since the end of the summer 2006 war that Hizballah provoked with Israel, Lebanon has seen both positive and negative developments. On the positive side, the expansion of a UNIFIL and the historic deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces to south Lebanon -- an area off-limits to the LAF since 1969 -- have provided a measure of stability to a war-weary population. This stability has helped promote recovery, well underway but far from complete. The international community through a post-war conference in Stockholm and a donors' conference in Paris in January has provided billions of dollars to assist Lebanon in reconstruction and reform. In addition, the Lebanese Armed Forces, with courage and sacrifice, defeated a terrorist threat on Lebanese soil earlier this year, in fighting Fatah al-Islam. The defeat of Fatah al-Islam and the deployment of the LAF to the south have expanded Lebanese authority over Lebanese territory, moving Lebanon closer to the day where Lebanese authorities will, as they should, have the monopoly over armed forces and over questions of war and peace.

On the negative side, efforts that began in November 2006 by the Hizballah-dominated parliamentary minority to topple the government have resulted in economic losses and political stalemate. Since the war's end, three Members of Parliament from the majority (including one who was also in the cabinet) have been assassinated, while opposition MPs who are allied with Syria remain unharmed. Despite the murders, the cabinet retains the vote of confidence of the parliamentary majority. Yet its ability to govern is weakened by security threats and the boycott by Syria's allies in Lebanon. While political divisions are a normal, healthy part of democracies, the Lebanese opposition, impatient with the reality of majority-minority politics, hopes to use other means to eliminate the majority even in advance of legislative elections that, constitutionally, aren't that far away -- May 2009. Thus, everyone hopes that presidential elections, scheduled for this month and which constitutionally trigger the process to form a new cabinet, will begin to heal this political divide in ways that do not compromise Lebanon's sovereignty, independence and democracy or undermine Lebanon's commitment to international resolutions.

In terms of the United States, our commitment to Lebanon is strong and rooted in bipartisan support. Since the end of the war, the President has requested and Congress has approved more than $1 billion in assistance to Lebanon.

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Eric in Washington, DC writes:

With Lebanon playing such an important role in regional stability, what role has U.S. foreign assistance played in stabilizing and developing the country, and what more should the United States do?

Ambassador Feltman:

Since the end of the summer 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, the United States has committed over $1 billion to Lebanon, an enormous increase over what had been an annual assistance budget ranging from $40-50 million a year. This increased sum shows the bipartisan support for Lebanon and recognition of Lebanon's unique role in the region.

Working in partnership with the Government of Lebanon, we are helping to modernize and equip the Lebanese Armed Forces and national police. We are providing support for Lebanon's own reform program, to promote policies aimed at increasing transparency and economic growth. Funds for scholarships and training provide skills so that Lebanese can create job opportunities and wealth. We are beginning new programs responding to the Government's plan to strengthen the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, and municipal decision-making.

You ask what more we should be doing. I hope with the election of a new Lebanese president scheduled to take place this month and with the formation of the new cabinet that follows, the United States and Lebanon's other international friends will focus even more intensely on a few areas in particular: helping to create the conditions for economic growth that creates jobs that allow young Lebanese to find opportunities here rather than abroad; encouraging the effectiveness of parliamentary representation through electoral reform; and strengthening Lebanon's army and police force to make them better able to provide Lebanese with the security and stability they crave. I think a new election law, for example, that would be considered modern and fair by most observers is essential well in advance of Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections. While the election law must be entirely a "made-in-Lebanon" product, I hope we can provide assistance and support.

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Issam in California writes:

Mr. Ambassador: How do you see the future of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?

Ambassador Feltman:

Issam, you ask about one of the most sensitive topics I have encountered in Lebanon. The issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is one of the few issues I can think of that has an almost universal Lebanese consensus: all Lebanese interlocutors, no matter from what religious community or what political affiliation, emphasize to me repeatedly that the Palestinian refugees cannot be permanently settled in Lebanon, given the delicate nature of Lebanon's confessional (communal) balance. I assure you that the United States is aware that, whenever the Israelis and Palestinians are able to talk seriously about the issue of Palestinian refugees, the special concerns of Lebanon must be taken into account. No one, of course, can argue Lebanon's case as effectively as the Lebanese themselves, so I sincerely hope for dynamic Lebanese participation in any international efforts regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues.

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Eric in Arizona writes:

Of your background and education, what have you found most beneficial in serving as a U.S. Ambassador?

Ambassador Feltman:

It seems to me that the best preparation for the role of U.S. ambassador is similar to what I would argue is good preparation for any Foreign Service officer: a broad, general education and experience that touches on many areas. In a single day, for example, I could be negotiating with economic officials on protection of intellectual property rights, helping to open an agricultural extension center, escorting a Congressional delegation to meetings with Lebanese officials, and opening a U.S. cultural or trade exhibit. One needs to have at least a passing knowledge of a whole range of topics, for it's hard to predict what Lebanese interlocutors might raise on any given day. But what is also useful is a basic curiosity and interest in what others, coming from far different backgrounds and cultures, think.

But, Eric, I will admit to you: I think there is not a single day that passes where I don't say to myself, "wow, I wish I knew more about that." The trouble is that the topic I wish I knew more about changes every day, depending on what I am doing and who I am meeting.

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Kevin in New York writes:

I am currently a college student in my third year. My major is International Studies and I am also studying Arabic. I am interested in working with the state department upon graduation and I aspire to hopefully one day become Ambassador to a Middle Eastern country. With your experience what would you recommend me to do as far as graduate school and/or applying for a job after I receive my bachelors?

Ambassador Feltman:

I would definitely start out by checking out the careers section of the State Department website (www.state.gov), for the State Department has a number of different areas of employment opportunities, ranging from specialists in certain areas to generalists (like me -- I'm a generalist in the economic "cone" or area of focus). To the extent that you can bring in foreign language skills to the Foreign Service, you are a step ahead. (And "mabrouk" and good luck on the Arabic language studies -- we need people with good Arabic.) I myself went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts for graduate school, but I worked a few years before I joined the Foreign Service.

I am constantly amazed, though, at how varied the backgrounds are of those I've met in the Foreign Service -- there is no single, proven path for entry or for success once you're in. The Foreign Service is indeed a "big tent." And I think that's something positive, that so many different experiences are represented in this career. One thing that is interesting is how the age of new hires keeps rising, meaning that more and more new officers bring other work experience to the State Department. This should strengthen us as a service, I would predict.

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Chris in Washington, DC writes:

What are some of the views the people in Lebanon have towards the United States?

Ambassador Feltman:

Chris, in one aspect, Lebanon is like all the other countries in which I've had the honor to serve: if you look long enough, you can find whatever attitude and view you wish to find about the United States -- positive, negative, neutral, well-informed, ignorant, whatever. But in general I find that the Lebanese have a fairly sophisticated understanding of us and thus don't jump to knee-jerk conclusions about who we are. Even when certain Lebanese don't like U.S. policies, their views about the American people remain largely positive.

This Lebanese sophistication about who we are has roots in several factors. First, there are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese-Americans who keep in touch with their Lebanese families. If I attend a large event and ask people if they have relatives or friends in the United States, almost everyone raises his or her hand. Second, there are some wonderful American institutions here, like the American University of Beirut, well over a century old, that has contributed to an understanding of the United States and its values. Third, the Lebanese are incredibly cosmopolitan, multilingual and with broad international business, financial, and political ties. We often joke that the Lebanese were specialists in globalization before that term was invented.

So when I hear views about us and our policies here, I take them seriously, given how relatively knowledgeable the Lebanese are about us. I'll give one good and one bad example. On the bad side, we have to admit to ourselves that the negative impression of the United States Government (but not the American people) went up in summer 2006, during the Hizballah-Israel war, when many Lebanese thought we should have used our friendship to Israel to bring the war to a quicker end. ( I believe that what we did do -- help broker the understandings that led to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 -- ultimately strengthened Lebanon and contributed to its security and stability.) At the other end of the spectrum, people are grateful to us for the leadership role that we played in helping end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005 and for continuing to support Lebanese sovereignty and independence.

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Chip in Michigan writes:Ambassador Feltman: What is the U.S. doing to assist the Lebanese military engage extremists such as Fatah Al-Islam, and Hezbollah? Is the Lebanese military capable of retaking control of the southern area of the country from Hezbollah. Finally, what is the current status of Fatah al-Islam following the recent military clashes in the Palestinian refugee camps? Thank you very much for your service to both our countries!

Ambassador Feltman:

Chip, all of us here admire the Lebanese Armed Forces' courage and determination this summer in defeating Fatah al-Islam's stronghold in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp. While there are Fatah al-Islam fighters who escaped and will no doubt try to regroup under the Fatah al-Islam battle, the LAF succeeded, and with great sacrifice, in eliminating the primary Fatah al-Islam threat.

While we were proud to respond positively to the Minister of Defense and the Army Commander's request for support, the battle was won first and foremost by the LAF -- and it was first and foremost a battle for Lebanon's security and independence. As a small gesture of our recognition of the army's victory over terrorists, I was honored to be about to commemorate the September 11 anniversary this year by placing a wreath on the monument to the LAF fallen. Unfortunately, Lebanon and the United States have both suffered losses at the hands of terrorists.

After the LAF's victory over Fatah al-Islam, the Lebanese government has declared that Lebanon will retain security control over the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Barid. In addition, over a year ago, the Lebanese Armed Forces deployed to south Lebanon for the first time since 1969. These are both important steps toward achieving the goal of the Lebanese government have authority over all Lebanese territory. With Hizballah still intent on retaining its weapons and its state-within-a-state status, the process is far from complete, of course. We hope that the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (that ended the summer 2006 hostilities) will promote a climate of stability and security that does lead to the assertion of government control everywhere.

We are helping both the Lebanese army and police force in training, equipment, spare parts, and ammunition. For the army alone, for example, since the end of last summer's war we have committed over $320 million in grant assistance. If the army is to be effective in preserving Lebanon's stability and protecting its borders, it needs modern equipment and training, and we are happy to be able to respond to Lebanon's requests for support.

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Terry in Michigan writes:

Mr. Ambassador, You are asking Syria and Iran not to interfere with Lebanon's Presidential Election but yet through you and through the Secretary of State you are telling the Lebanese politician that they need to do certain things or otherwise the USA will bar you or list you as part of a terrorist organization. I mainly speak about the Free Patriotic Movement opposition to the 1/2 plus one Presidential Election which is against the Lebanese Constitution. How do you want to support democratic movements in the Middle East but yet against the democratic principals of the FPM. As a US citizen, I find it that the democracy we are calling for in the Middle East is so different that our democracy here in the USA. If a country supports the US then it does it matter what kind of democracy this country is having. So troubling to the Principles of Democracy.

Ambassador Feltman:

Terry, we are not interpreting the Lebanese constitution for the Lebanese, who are capable of interpreting it on their own -- capable of interpreting it, but unfortunately not at all capable, apparently, of agreeing on what it means in a certain key areas! (Privately, I always wonder if the ambiguities in the Lebanese constitution stem from intentional or sloppy drafting. I've heard both excuses.) I have two growing mountains of studies in my office. One mountain of studies supports the March 14 interpretation of the constitution regarding presidential elections, and one mountain of studies supports the March 8-Aoun interpretation of the constitution. Both mountains of studies include well-argued, persuasive-sounding opinions written by respected international and Lebanese jurists, lawmakers, and academics. It would not be appropriate for the United States to decide which interpretation is correct. Until such time as Lebanon's constitutional court is re-established, Lebanon's parliament is the appropriate place for the authoritative interpretation of Lebanon's constitution, not the United States. Ultimately, authority in democracies rests with the elected representatives accountable to the public. The Lebanese will have their opportunity in the first half of 2009 to say what they think about their current Members of Parliament, by expressing their opinion through the ballot box.

The Free Patriotic Movement is a political organization with a significant popular base and large parliamentary bloc. We do not expect the FPM's views to overlap 100 percent with U.S. views -- the FPM is Lebanese, and we represent the U.S. Government. But it seems to me that it is preferable when FPM leaders make their decisions, they do so in full knowledge of U.S. policies. General Aoun and I meet frequently, and I have strived to be as transparent as possible with him -- and with others -- about the potential implications for relations with the United States of certain steps.

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Cathy in Michigan writes:

Obviously Lebanon has links to many factions in the Middle East.

Considering the ties between Iran and Hezbollah, is it not likely that an attack on Iran would escalate violence in the Middle East and completely scupper any hopeful peace plans?

Ambassador Feltman:

Cathy, I agree that there are connections between Iran and Lebanon, and that one cannot understand Lebanon fully -- if one can ever understand Lebanon fully! -- without taking into consideration the sympathies of the sizeable Shia population. As U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, however, I will defer to others regarding your comments on Iraq and Iran.

As for the Shia in Lebanon, Lebanese history has many sad examples of how they were neglected and marginalized by far too many internal and external powers. Now, however, the situation is different: I may not like Hizballah, but I will admit that the Shia now have the most lavishly funded and best organized political and social movement in Lebanon. It seems to me that it would be preferable for that power to be translated into full participation in the state. Instead, Hizballah's focus remains on building a state-within-a-state, complete with a well-armed militia that has proven willing and able to take the country to war without answering to any publicly accountable institution. Perhaps Hizballah could start with overcoming the deep distrust of other Lebanese by adopting a policy of full transparency about the sources and uses of its funding, for example. I have noted that, since September 2006, the United States has provided a bit more than $320 million to the Lebanese Armed Forces. We make sure that is public knowledge. As a challenge, I would ask Hizballah to reveal what Iran has provided and for what purpose.

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George in U.S.A. writes:

I am a Lebanese who lived half of my life in the U.S. Lebanon has been in a war since I was 9 years old, and it will stay this way as long as the Arab world keep having a militia inside because simply they hate democracy, freedom and our way of living. Lebanon is the only Arab country with Christian president and Israel the only country in that region not a Muslim. If Lebanon is free of militias like (Hezbollah, Fatah al-Islam, and any armed party Christian or Muslim.), the free roaming of terror will end in Lebanon as well as in Israel and the rest of the world. Lebanon needs a free government not controlled government to be able to establish peace. Now Lebanon is the leader in legal I mean legal base for terrorist, hiding behind what we call free elected government. I call it the front legal voice of terror, not by choice, I think. So please help the world by helping Lebanon.

Ambassador Feltman:

George, there is a sizeable international consensus behind support the Lebanese state, in hopes of strengthening that state so that it is capable of asserting legal and military authority over all Lebanese territory. In September 2004 and August 2006, the United States co-sponsored two UN Security Council Resolutions (#1559 and #1701) which called for the disbanding and dismantlement of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. That principle helps guide international engagement in Lebanon. The process is not easy or quick, but Lebanon will be safer once the publicly accountable state institutions, not foreign-funded militias, are in control.

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John in Texas writes:

As U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, what is your main objective for the country of Lebanon?

Ambassador Feltman:

John, I think if I try to pick one theme for everything we are doing in Lebanon, I would say that we are trying to support a process by which the Lebanese state, accountable to the Lebanese people through a functioning and representative parliament, is in charge of Lebanon. For example, take the summer 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel: I don't think that the Lebanese government or Lebanese parliament would have thought it wise or in Lebanon's best interest for Hizballah to provoke the war on July 12. But Hizballah never gave the Lebanese government and parliament the opportunity to give its opinion. So our help to the army is designed to strengthen an important state institution. Our support for Lebanon's reform program is aimed at promoting transparency and the rule of law, to give the Lebanese people confidence in their state institutions.

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John in Illinois writes:

Do you believe Lebanon would be better served by adoption of a constitution similar to that of the UAE which would allow it to break into smaller "emirates" but maintain its national status in the realm of security and trade?

Ambassador Feltman:

John, while there are many things I have yet to learn about Lebanon, I have learned one important lesson -- avoid expressing any opinion, no matter how personal or tentative, about the controversial topic you raise! As you no doubt know, the political stalemate that has endured since the pro-Syrian ministers left the cabinet a year ago has revived a discussion inside Lebanon about potential "federal" or "emirati" options for Lebanon. These are questions for the Lebanese, not the Americans. We remain committed to the Ta'if accord (from 1989, that ended the civil war), as the Ta'if accord has been incorporated into Lebanon's constitution and has the backing of Lebanon's parliament.

At the risk of enraging part of the Lebanese population, I will make one comment about federalist-style divisions: in most countries with a federalist system, foreign policy and defense are two areas assigned to the national government. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, with Hizballah's alliance with Iran, those are exactly the two areas on which the internal divisions in Lebanon are deepest.

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Christopher in Texas writes:Ambassador Feltman: I am really concerned that Lebanon's MPs are hold-up in a downtown Beirut hotel. What are we and the international community doing to get them back to work in their peoples' house? What can be done to increase their basic security? The longer they remain in the hotel, the weaker they appear. I don't think this is acceptable for me and more importantly, our Lebanese friends.

Ambassador Feltman:

Christopher, I am glad you raised this topic. My staff and I have visited the MPs in the hotel, and I have encouraged other diplomatic colleagues to do the same. The French, Italian, and Spanish Foreign Ministers, along with other international visitors, have also spent time with the MPs to show solidarity. I was glad that the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation had its most-watched political talk show host, Marcel Ghanem, broadcast from the hotel last week. The more attention that can be brought to the plight of these MPs, the better: is there any other country in the world where the parliamentary majority is under such threat that its members must be secluded in a fortified hotel, hidden at home, or sent abroad? When I hear about Lebanese "resistance," I think of these courageous MPs, who are resisting the threat of death in order to promote and protect Lebanon's democracy. It is sad to see opposition MPs allied with Syria continue to attend events and move around town seeing their constituents and raising their own profiles, when majority MPs have to remain secluded.

The basic problem is that the parliamentary majority is indeed under threat here. Since the May-June 2005 parliamentary elections, four MPs from the majority have been assassinated, two this year alone. It is scandalous, in my view, that a democratic majority should be considered such a threat that its members have been given death sentences by others. One needs to ask what power is so threatened by a parliamentary majority that it would commit murder, repeatedly.

I hope that the answer to the MPs' safety comes with the election this month of a new president and the formation of a new cabinet that follows. Let us hope that this transition will go smoothly and will restore a sense of security and stability to these MPs' lives. The United States and others are responding positively to Lebanon's request for training and equipment for the army and police, to improve their ability to provide security. And let us hope that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, adopted in May by the UN Security Council when Syria's allies in Lebanon kept the parliament locked, will also help end the sad era of impunity when it comes to assassinations in Lebanon.

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Donald in North Carolina writes:

What is it, specifically, that gives you reason to believe that granting Palestinians more from Israel, will bring them into peaceful relations with Israel?

Are you acquainted with the God of Abraham Isaac Jacob's plan for dealing with enemies of His people, the Jews, spelled out clearly in Scriptures? Are you aware of the consequences of going against God's plan?

We Christian citizens out here are scared deeply at God's wrath from your plan.

Do you support Israel in this dispute?

Ambassador Feltman:

As U.S. Ambassador in Lebanon, I see every day the negative repercussions on this country of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian and, more broadly, Israeli-Arab conflict. I sincerely hope that the Annapolis discussions scheduled for later this month will help promote President Bush's vision for two states and two peoples living side-by-side in peace. I believe that it is in our interest to promote peace and stability, but from a perspective of realism.

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Lieselotte in Germany writes:Ambassador Feltman: What do you think is threatening the Lebanese state the most at the moment? What groups are interested in destabilizing the country?

Ambassador Feltman:

As I have noted in answering some of the other questions, I think that the biggest danger to the Lebanese state is the attempt by some groups inside the state to destroy, destabilize, replace, or bypass the publicly accountable state. Hizballah is the more prominent example. Hizballah smuggles arms into Lebanon and within Lebanon, risking Lebanon's security. Recent news reports revealed that Hizballah is even constructing a comprehensive Hizballah-only telephone network. Hizballah has illegal calling and internet centers, and Hizballah security officials "arrest" Lebanese security officials who wander into Hizballah-controlled areas. Hizballah exempts itself from the rules of law in Lebanon that are supposed to apply to everyone.

Another example is the existence of Palestinian military bases such as Qosayah in the Biqa' Valley and Naameh south of Beirut's airport. These are not refugee camps and do not have civilian population. These are Palestinian armed camps, with trained militants threatening the Lebanese state.

Both Hizballah and the Palestinian military bases receive logistic and other support from Syria, unfortunately. Let us hope that various initiatives now underway will put control of Lebanon's borders in Lebanese state hands, in hopes of reducing the infiltration of arms and fighters that threaten the state.

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Dieter in Germany writes:

Sir, what can the U.S. do to support the government of Lebanon in its fight against the terror group Hezbollah? How do you judge the development within Lebanon since summer 2006? Has Lebanon recovered in a relevant way?

Ambassador Feltman:

Dieter, rather than repeat myself, please allow me to refer to the answers I gave to another writer from Germany, Elfriede. The record has been mixed since last summer's war, but some of the security developments -- deployment of the army to the south, the army's defeat of Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the north -- are encouraging.

Best regards.

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Martin in Germany writes:

Ambassador Feltman!

What do you think the U.S. is able to contribute to preventing Syria from destabilizing Lebanon? Would you agree that Lebanon as the only democracy in the Middle East besides Israel is a very important part of the President's freedom agenda? What can be done to strengthen the government and the institutions of the state?

Ambassador Feltman:

I would hope that Syria would begin to listen to the international community. Multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and statements have called for an end to Syrian interference in Lebanon, and many private messages have been conveyed. Syria has a real opportunity now, with Lebanon's presidential elections: if Syria's Lebanese allies and proxies play a constructive role in seeing a successful and democratic transition in Lebanon's presidency and cabinet, then Syria will show that it understands and accepts the international message. It is natural for Syria and Lebanon to want to have excellent relations between them, given the historic, family, and economic ties. But, just as Lebanon's National Dialogue (convened under the leadership of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri) stated in spring 2006, these relations should be established diplomatically and be based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

As you probably saw, the United States only a few days ago imposed new financial sanctions against two Syrians and two Lebanese proxies of Syria because of their role in undermining Lebanon's legitimate institutions. The United States is using a variety of tools to encourage the Syrians to end their interference.

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Ibrahim in New York writes:

Tell me please why is the U.S. is still holding off attacking Syria if the U.S. is so sure of the support of Syria to terrorism.

Ambassador Feltman:

Syria has stated repeatedly that it has an interest in stability in Iraq and that it respects Lebanon's democracy and independence. We would like to see evidence of those words being applied in action. We will continue to look for ways to encourage improvements in Syrian behavior.

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Bashar in U.S. writes:

I was wondering what attracted you to the Foreign Service career, and what advice do you give somebody who is interested in the Foreign Service?

Ambassador Feltman:

Bashar, I didn't have a good understanding of what the Foreign Service was when I first started looking into the career. It sounded like a wonderful combination of adventure (Junior Year Abroad, for an extended period!) and service to my country. Remarkably, my ignorant first impressions were fairly close to the reality. After more than 20 years in the State Department, I have found this to be a simultaneously challenging and rewarding career. One has to accept with good humor and flexibility the inconveniences and confusion that come with constantly changing work environments, but the Foreign Service provides wonderful opportunities to serve our country. My advice, if you are interested, would be the same I have given to others: get as broad experience and broad an education as possible, to prepare you for any contingency.

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Hassan in U.S.A. writes:

What is the percentage of having a new president elected in Lebanon by November 24th?

Thanks.

Ambassador Feltman:

Hassan, I do not know what the percentage of having a new president is. I assure you that we are doing whatever we can to help create a climate by which Lebanon's parliament does meet and elect a new president by November 24. It should be self-evident that it is essential that Lebanon's parliament be permitted to meet and elect a president, thus preventing a vacuum or chaos and thus starting the process of selecting a new cabinet.

I will say that I am concerned that some Members of Parliament would be so threatened by democracy that they would boycott the parliamentary session to elect a president. The Maronite Bishops, in their annual statement in September, described a boycott of presidential elections as akin to a boycott of the nation. I hope that the MPs will listen to the Bishops and accept that one of their most serious responsibilities is to ensure there is no presidential vacuum when President Lahoud's extended term expires at midnight on November 23.

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Amanda in Virginia writes:

What do the colors of the Lebanese flag mean?

Ambassador Feltman:

Amanda, your question sent me scrambling to the internet. I knew who the original designer of the current Lebanese flag was -- Henri Pharoan, in 1943 -- but not what the colors mean. And I thought, well, I should know. So I checked and discovered that, like everything in Lebanon, there are many conflicting interpretations. But most accounts i found seem to focus on the white representing the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon and purity and the red stripes representing the blood of those who died fighting the Ottomans and French for independence. The cedar tree, of course, is the symbol of Lebanon, and has links to the Bible. There is quite a controversy in the internet sites I checked about the trunk of the cedar tree on the flag -- officially, the trunk is supposed to be the same color as the tree itself, but some people (to the horror of flag purists) render the trunk in brown to make it more realistic looking.

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Maria in Idaho writes:

One of my family members wants to travel to Lebanon on a "Christian humanitarian mission" next summer. She says that the Hizbollah likes "Christians" and will not hurt them. Is this true and is she safe to travel to Lebanon?

Ambassador Feltman:

Maria, I would ask you to have your family member please check out the travel advisory information for Lebanon or any country to be visited at www.state.gov. You can find the most up-to-date travel advisories there. Because of the security situation here, where Hizballah controls parts of the country and the state institutions have little practical authority, we in general counsel that people defer travel. For example, the most recent State Department travel warning (October 17,2007), states that "The Department of State continues strongly to urge that Americans defer travel to Lebanon and that American citizens in Lebanon consider carefully the risks of remaining."

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Andy in Pennsylvania writes:

How good is your Arabic?

Ambassador Feltman:

Andy, my Arabic is not as good as I wish it were! And, unfortunately, my spoken Arabic is not as good as it once was. Now that I am ambassador, I tend in official meetings and in front of the media to rely more on English and use a good interpreter. I want to make sure that I am not misunderstood -- one mistake in Arabic, and I might make unfortunate headlines. (I assure you that I have made a few unfortunate headlines even in English!) In previous postings, before becoming Ambassador, I was more courageous and experimental in using Arabic. That said, my listening and reading comprehension continue to improve. Language learning is something that comes easier to some than others, and I unfortunately put myself in the "other" category.

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Greg in California writes:

How do the 'average' Lebanese citizens view/interact with the American tourists (if there are any) on the streets?

Ambassador Feltman:

Greg, the U.S. Department of State asks travelers to defer travel to Lebanon; you can check out the advisory on www.state.gov. Our concern stems from the history of attacks on Americans and U.S. institutions and from the fact that the Lebanese state does not control all of the Lebanese territory. Anti-American groups such as Hizballah are extremely powerful in Lebanon. But of course many Americans visit Lebanon despite this warning, and there are many Lebanese-Americans who travel frequently to see family and friends. I think that they are in general impressed by the warmth of the friendship and the generosity of the hospitality that they experience from "average" Lebanese citizens. I certainly have been touched deeply by the friendship and hospitality extended to me and my wife Mary Dale during these three-plus years.

---
Joe in Arizona writes:

How long have you been the Ambassador?

Ambassador Feltman:

Joe, on some days it feels as though I've been Ambassador for ten years, and on other days I feel as though I've only been here ten minutes. In fact, I was confirmed by the Senate in July 2004 and arrived to assume my position on August 20, 2004, a bit more than three years ago.

---
Richard in New York writes:

How do you feel the U.S. can play a role in assuring a continuing democracy in Lebanon?

Do you think that the ties between the U.S. and Lebanon may increase so as to mimic the strong relations the U.S. has had with Israel?

Ambassador Feltman:

Richard, I am confident that the U.S.-Lebanese relationship will remain extremely strong for one simple reason: there are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese-Americans who maintain close connections with their families and friends in Lebanon. These people-to-people relations are the foundation of what has become extremely close, mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries.

In addition to these personal contacts, I also note that the support for Lebanon's democracy extends from the White House to the Congress and includes Republicans and Democrats alike. I've talked elsewhere about the fact that, since September 2006, the United States has generously committed over a billion dollars to support Lebanon's democracy and stability. These funds were requested by President Bush and appropriated by Congress and demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Lebanon.

Despite recognizing the difficulties and complications, I am hopeful about a successful presidential transition in Lebanon later this month, and I believe that transition, which should usher in a president committed to Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy, will further contribute to the blossoming of U.S.-Lebanese relations.

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Rabi in Pennsylvania writes:

When will Lebanon be stable enough for U.S. business? Additionally, are there any U.S. government contacts under AFCEE or DOD in Lebanon?

Ambassador Feltman:

I would encourage you to check out our Embassy's website (www.lebanon.usembassy.gov) for information about our Commercial Section. Despite our travel warning and the political uncertainties, there are U.S. businesses who find opportunities in Lebanon today, and there are many local partnerships between Lebanese and U.S. businesses.

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Jeffry in Ohio writes:

What are your duties as ambassador?

Ambassador Feltman:

As Ambassador is the President's representative to the country to which one is assigned. So, in Lebanon, I am supposed to the best of my abilities be representing, explaining, and promoting U.S. policy in Lebanon and to the Lebanese. I also need to do my best to understand the Lebanese perspectives, to convey those back to Washington and provide in that context my analysis and suggestions. The Ambassador is also the Chief of Mission, in charge of all aspects of the Embassy and all agencies and sections represented in the Embassy. In Beirut, we have nearly 500 employees, including our Lebanese staff members. As Ambassador, I have to make sure that U.S. taxpayers' money in Lebanon is being used and controlled appropriately.

One of the most important tasks of any Embassy is to provide services and, to the extent possible, protection to U.S. citizens abroad. Often, the commitment to provide protection to U.S. citizens is largely a hypothetical one: consular officers, for example, will visit American jailed abroad to ensure that they are being treated in a non-discriminatory fashion according to local laws, and consular officers will do their best to resolve child-welfare cases. But when Lebanon found itself at war in July 2006, our Embassy faced an enormous task to live up to our commitment to help U.S. citizens in distress. Ultimately, in partnership with the U.S. military, we were able to move over 15,000 American citizens to safety. We also do our part to promote homeland security, by working with Lebanese law enforcement and judicial officials in fighting terrorism.

I recommend that you visit our website (www.lebanon.usembassy.gov) if you would like to see more what I do and more about the work of our Embassy.

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B.J. in New York writes:

As an American citizen and during my visit to Lebanon, I was denied a meeting with the American Council on the basis I was born in Lebanon. Is this a normal legal procedure to be screened by non citizen employees and determine my rights as an American Citizen? Or should I have been granted the right of meeting? Thank You! God Bless!

Ambassador Feltman:

B.J., please don't be offended if you encounter local staff when you come to the Embassy. I think that it's common practice around the world that, in general, the first people you will encounter at a U.S. Embassy are probably members of what are known as the "Locally Engaged Staff" or LES -- the U.S. government employees who are usually from the local country and who have the local language skills, knowledge of local customs, etc. These LES, while in general they aren't U.S. citizens, are key parts of the team of any Embassy and provide the backbone of our workforce. We couldn't be effective without their commitment and loyalty.

If you came to the American Citizens Service of our Embassy, for example, you would encounter first our security guards, who are Lebanese employees, who would screen you and permit you onto the compound. Then you would probably encounter one of our clerks, also Lebanese, who would verify what service you needed. If you simply needed forms or questions answered, that might be the end of your visit. But if you needed, say, a new passport or the service of a notary, only American citizen consular officers have the authority to complete that work. The Lebanese employee would help you through the process, and the American officer would, in the example of a notary service, witness your signature. Given the number of American citizens who need service every day, this is an efficient way for us to use limited resources. And our Lebanese employees are excellent!

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Ammar in Indiana writes:

On the past 2 presidential election I have noticed that Arab American who lives during election time at any of the Arab American countries (for visit or business or any others) not able to vote. After a research on how come they are not voting? 65% say they never registered to vote and the reason why they not registered most of them says because they don't know how and where to register the other 35% say because they tried and they have had hard time getting in to the embassy so they can vote. Either they have to have an appointment or they have to wait for hours which they not preferred to do.

My question is: Are there any ways that the U S embassies can have a program that educates the U.S. citizens who reside in the Arab countries on how, where, and when to vote?

Thank you for your time.

Ambassador Feltman:

Ammar, you've done your research, so you probably know that one cannot register to vote at U.S. Embassies and one cannot vote at U.S. Embassies. You have to register via your home state electoral offices, and then you receive via the mail absentee ballots (which you mail back). You can get absentee voting material at the embassies, however, that help you register. Even if you no longer have a state or local home address, you can still register for federal elections. I'd suggest you tell your friends to check their embassies' websites, for they probably have information. But the bottom line is that you can't vote or even register to vote at embassies. But you can get the appropriate forms and the addresses of how to register.

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Brittany in Mississippi writes:

What advice would you give to university students seeking employment with the State Dept.?

Ambassador Feltman:

First, check out the careers section on the State Department website (www.state.gov), for there are several different options for employment. If one wants to join the State Department as a Foreign Service generalist (which is how I joined in January 1986), I would repeat what I've told to others: a broad education and broad experience is best, for you never can predict or prepare for what you might be required to do on any particular day. I would also advise those interested to consider how flexible they are, for we are constantly changing jobs, countries, supervisors, languages, cultures, security environment, etc. If someone is more comfortable in a predictable environment, then perhaps the Foreign Service is not the ideal fit.

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Ron in Miami writes:

How long the Ambassador assigned for his/her position

Ambassador Feltman:

Ron, Ambassadors serve, as we say, "at the pleasure of the President." The President nominates ambassadors, and (per the constitution) the Senate confirms them. That means that the President can ultimately determine the length of an ambassador's tour. For those of us who are career ambassadors (i.e., Foreign Service officers who rose through the ranks), the typical tour is three years. But I can attest that it is quite a surprise, as a first-time ambassador, to get the official assignment notification (a bureaucratic notice) that lists one's length of tour as "indefinite," when usually there is a specific end date listed for positions below the rank of ambassadors. I have been here since August 2004.

Comments

Comments

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
November 8, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Mr. Ambassador, if I was to sum up the best chance for the Lebanese people to have a future of peace and prosperity, it lies in the Syrian and Iranian people's thirst for freedom from their own ethical infants.

Good to see France takes a healthy interest in the issue, and if I may, how do you see the international efforts to protect the soverign interests of Lebanon evolving in the face of continued violation of UN Sec. Council resolutions by Syria and Iran?

Thanks.

Ronald
|
New York, USA
November 8, 2007

Ronald in New York writes:

Dear Ambassador Feltman:

Burning Cedar

How can a "Cedar Revolution" succeed when it has the support of the United States?

Isn't it paradoxical that U.S. support for fledgling democracies and moderate governments seems to have the kiss of death built in?

There are many foreign affairs experts who believe that the current administration has so damaged international credibility that Lebanon will continue to suffer as long as it is viewed as a U.S. surrogate. The "Reverse Midas Touch" theory is unfortunately at work throughout the middle-east and threatens many other regions.

Mark
|
Massachusetts, USA
November 11, 2007

Mark in Massachusetts writes:

Dear Ambassador Feltman,

While the U.S. has contributed substantial resources to Lebanon, in both military and economic aid, the emphasis appears to be very much on military aid. While this is understandable given Lebanon's current circumstance, it seems that broad and comprehensive economic support is also crucial. Whether justified or not, Hezbollah is now seen in many quarters of civil society in Lebanon as the most active and positive social force as a result of both their health care initiatives and visible commitment to rebuilding of war damaged areas.

How can the U.S. play a more substantial role, and a more visible one, vis a vis Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian organizations? Is a well branded, well marketed and well executed program focused on a few key areas (for example - children's health, or education, etc.) not viable?

Kenneth T.
|
Canada
November 11, 2007

Kenneth in Canada writes:

As long as the U.S. is involved in Lebanon, there will never peace or democratic government. Why is this so? Because, the U.S. government, which includes the Dept. of State has a happy knack of setting up a regime that is overtly a puppet regime. Thus, even Lebanon's neighbors have no respect for it. Take the U.S. out of this equation and we might see democracy return to Lebanon.

I do nor believe that there is any country today, that wants the U.S. tampering with its elections or setting-up a regime that is pro U.S. Just take a good look at America Latina, and you will get what I mean. Every time there was a regime change in America Latina, it was usually done by the CIA, and a lot of people were murdered to achieve it. How can anyone call that a democratically elected government?

Do the world a favor and stop meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. Let the people choose whom they wish, without any U.S. input. That is what is called democracy.

Louis
|
Pennsylvania, USA
November 13, 2007

Louis in Pennsylvania writes:

Dear Ambassador,

In your opinions, what could we -- moderates in and outside Lebanon -- do to help bring the extremes in the country to agree on a basic shared vision for the country?

I am also interested in your reading about the possibility of Lebanese politics to decouple from Sectarian/Tribal allegiances.

Finally, it seems that revived relations with France offer a clear opportunity to effect positive change in the country through France's historical (and less controversial) relations with Lebanon.

Best Regards.

George
|
District Of Columbia, USA
November 13, 2007

George in Washington, DC writes:

We urge the United States to continue to insist that Lebanon's presidential election take place on time, according to Lebanon's constitution, and without outside interference.

We urge the U.S. to expedite the establishment of the special tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Paul
|
Florida, USA
November 14, 2007

Paul in Florida writes:

Dear Mr. Ambassador:

I am a retired FSO after a 30 year career that included Europe and Asia. The closest I came to Lebanon (besides a plane stop on the way to Amman in 1982) was when some of our Embassy Beirut colleagues were housed in our Nicosia Embassy after the 1982 evacuation. One of them, Bill McIntyre of USAID, was a kind man whom I remember warmly and who was killed in the Hizbollah bombing of the Embassy in 1983.

http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2007/10/does-loving-lebanon-mean-the-bush-...

I was wondering whether you have seen or had any reaction to the above-linked article in the far left "Dissident Voice." Franklin Lamb, the author, is no friend of U.S. policy, and his wife was killed in the Embassy bombing while talking to Bill McIntyre. Lamb quotes hostile articles from the pro-Syrian media and even an unnamed "staffer" from NEA/ARN who purports to give list of items you were responsible for, using an expletive for effect. I would find it hard to believe that anyone would talk so openly to Lamb, understanding his agenda, and giving him details of what your "taskings" allegedly were. It's also strange that Lamb seems to glorify his wife's killers, but that's the topsy-turvey world we live in.

Best wishes to you. Are you really leaving as he says you are?

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